Heart of Darkness primarily takes place in the late nineteenth century in the Belgian-controlled Congo Free State. At that time, Europe controlled immense empires around the world, meaning places like the Congo were subject to horrific violence in the service of stripping away and exporting massive amounts of natural resources. In the case of the Belgian Congo, traders forced Africans into slavery to support the extraction of ivory for a quickly expanding global market. Marlow’s journey into the Congolese interior progressively exposes the violence and greed of fellow representatives of the Company, the Belgian enterprise Marlow works for. However, even though European empires were at their peak, many Europeans remained in the dark about the colonies and what happened there. Marlow indicates as much early in the novella:
Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps...At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say: When I grow up I will go there.
Though framed by his childhood excitement at the possibility of exploration, Marlow’s discussion of the “blank spaces” on the map demonstrates how, to those at home in Europe, the colonies appeared to be places of obscurity and darkness.
Most of the action happens in Africa, but Heart of Darkness begins and ends in a boat on the River Thames, just outside of London. In the novella’s second paragraph, the narrator describes a dark, ominous cloud that hangs over London: “The air was dark . . . [and] seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest town on earth.” There is clear irony here, with the insistence on London’s greatness, paired with the “mournful gloom” that has condensed above it. The meaning of the narrator’s irony becomes clearer by the novella’s concluding sentence, which returns to the brooding darkness over the city: “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” By opening and closing the novella in this way, Conrad suggests that Africa may not be the real heart of darkness after all. Perhaps London—and, by extension, all of Europe’s great towns—are the real centers of darkness.